Naturalist Fact: Prickly pear cactus (Opuntia hemifusa)

Prickly pear fruits are ripening in the fall. Almost ready for sorbet!

The prickly pear cactus (also called devil’s tongue and Indian fig) is a native species of cactus found throughout the United States, east of the Rocky Mountains. It prefers the well-drained gravel and sandy soils found on the island. They thrive in the open sunlight of early plant succession communities and disturbed areas. These iconic desert plants line Beach Road, Marsh Road, and can also be found on the south end of Little St. Simons Island.

The prickly pear can grow to be about three feet tall, with succulent, segmented stems forming wide “pads.” Cacti’s leaves are modified into spines, and on the prickly pear these can be two inches long and protrude from the pads and fruits. Also covering these surfaces are “glochids,” or tiny hair-like barbed bristles that can also irritate your skin.

Showy yellow flowers of late spring give way to a cylindrical fruit that ripens to a purple color in the fall. Both the pads and the fruits of the prickly pear are edible. The melony-tasting fruit can be incorporated into jams, jellies, and syrups (and are a good source of Vitamin C!) Our chefs also use prickly pear fruit in a refreshing dessert sorbet.



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